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Hempstead school district faces a serious crisis

Hempstead School Superintendent Shimon Waronker, center, in tan

Hempstead School Superintendent Shimon Waronker, center, in tan jacket, attempts to calm an angry member of the audience during a July 5, 2017, meeting of the Hempstead School Board. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

On Monday, the state Education Department issued a devastating report on the Hempstead school district. It said the school board was the “most significant barrier” to the successful education of Hempstead’s students. Its litany of dysfunction was sadly familiar — deep divisions, long rancorous meetings, a failure to put students first, a lack of transparency, administrative turmoil.

On Tuesday, the board lived down to those findings.

Its long, rancorous meeting included several hours in private executive session and culminated in a 3-2 vote to place on administrative leave embattled Superintendent Shimon Waronker. Waronker, who has made good moves as well as missteps, including contracting with a nonprofit company he founded for consulting, started just seven months ago. As the meeting broke up, one audience member started playing “Hit the Road Jack” on a piano as other spectators gleefully sang along.

And today’s Hempstead’s students are now part of yet another generation failed by adults more concerned about power, jobs and ethnic loyalties than the children they are supposed to serve.

The district has been evaluated harshly before, and has failed to respond. Many audits have identified problems still unresolved. The new report says gang violence threatens students and staff, and notes Hempstead High School has had more than 50 fights since September, some with serious injuries. Deteriorating buildings are overcrowded, and dozens of portable classrooms are 30 to 40 years old and in bad condition. The Class of 2018 has a dropout rate of 34 percent, there are no elementary school reading teachers, and the district ranks in the bottom 1 percent nationally in achievement growth from grade 3 to grade 8.

The report tightens the screws of the state Education Department’s oversight. It recommends training for board members and other officials on governance and board-community relations, an independent authority to provide fiscal oversight, updated business operations and comprehensive long-term instructional plans. These are sensible steps and would put in place the guardrails essential for any school district.

The school board must respond by Feb. 2, but history suggests the district will not follow through on whatever it promises. The time is fast approaching, if it’s not already here, for state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to take stronger action — like placing Hempstead under the control of an independent receiver. We don’t say this lightly, given the state’s rocky experience in taking over the Roosevelt school district 16 years ago.

Elected officials who represent Hempstead, especially those closest to the district, must show leadership. State Sen. Kemp Hannon and Assembly members Earlene Hooper and Ed Ra; Nassau County Legislators Siela Bynoe, Kevan Abrahams and Laura Schaefer and County Executive Laura Curran; Hempstead Town Board members Dorothy Goosby and Edward Ambrosino and Supervisor Laura Gillen; and Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan — all could help develop consensus for a plan to save this school district in crisis.

Hempstead is in free fall. If it cannot or will not save itself, Elia must find someone else to steer this troubled ship.